We all have those songs that make up our own soundtracks: The first single you couldn’t stop listening to. The first time you heard a favourite song live. The song that defined a season. The song that reminds you of someone you used to know.
My soundtrack has a song that changed the course of my life. Maybe even saved it, for all I know.
That might sound dramatic, but I’d already been in two abusive relationships before the age of 18, and the few people I’d turned to for help had been unable (or even unwilling) to save me.
Eventually, I had to save myself, and the realization that I could do it came to me through a simple, poppy song on a sunny Sunday afternoon.
Usually, I worked on weekends at a third-rate music store at the mall. But I had a rare day off, and I’d decided to go shopping downtown.
My mom was downstairs, in the kitchen. I could hear dishes rattling in the sink. My dad was sitting on the deck in the backyard.
It was summer, and I was sitting on my bed, taking my time getting ready for the day. The CD coming out of the speakers was the Cure’s Wish.
Earlier that year, I’d been rejected from an internship at a music magazine. They’d asked me to submit a writing sample in the form of an album review. Wish was the album I’d chosen to write about. “You know,” the managing editor had told me as he looked over my work, “this was the album that made a lot of Cure fans decide they weren’t fans anymore.”
He didn’t mention that my review was seven years too late, anyway; it had been out since 1992. I realized, later, that other aspiring interns would (rightly) have chosen to write about something more current, at least. But I didn’t care about what else was popular at the time. I wanted to write about the Cure, even if the album I’d chosen wasn’t even a favourite among fans who’d come before me.
I didn’t grow up with a lot of money. I had a small CD collection, even though I worked at a music store our discount was laughable, and so I would re-play my same albums over and over again, most of which I’d bought used.
The Cure’s Wild Mood Swings had come out in 1996, and I’d gotten into them after seeing their videos on rotation on MuchMusic. The ‘90s were a strange time to get into the Cure, whose sound was so poppy – so happy – compared to the heavy, earthy drags of Nirvana and Soundgarden and Smashing Pumpkins and Pearl Jam who were so huge at the time.
When I got my hands on a copy of Wish, there was just something about those songs that I felt so connected to. Some were sad and some were beautiful and some were fun and silly and somehow, it all worked together.
There were not a lot of things working together for me in 1999. I was 17, and I was in a bad relationship, and I was often angry at myself for it.
I was angry because I’d already been through that kind of thing once before. When I was a bit younger, I’d dated someone who lied to me, who told me that everyone I thought was my friend was actually talking about me behind my back. Who questioned every move I made. Who needed to know where I was whenever I wasn’t home.
Who made me feel like I was going nowhere. Who took every chance they could to hold my flaws out for me to see. Who threatened suicide every time I tried to break it off. Who got into my head so hard that by the end of the relationship, I felt like he had become my entire, terrible world and I didn’t have a single friend left.
Loneliness is a tough thing at any age. When you’re in your teens, it can feel unbearable.
When I got through it, I told myself, “Never again.” And then, I fell for another boy and ignored every familiar warning sign from the start.
“If a guy ever hit me I would leave right away.” This is the statement I have heard from a number of friends I’ve shared this story with over the years.
It’s a statement that a lot of people make when they don’t actually know what it’s like to be in an abusive relationship.
It’s a statement that’s easy to say when there is no relationship, no feelings, no history, no love. When a sense of self hasn’t started to erode yet. When you don’t really know what you will and won’t do for someone you care about, and who you deeply want to have care about you.
It’s easy when your confidence hasn’t been slightly shaken. When there’s no reason to fight for hope, to be willing to forgive or overlook or wonder if things can change.
It’s easy when it’s not your life, not your story, not your heart that’s involved.
It’s a lot harder to put into practice when you don’t even realize what you’ve gotten into until it feels too late to turn around. Because that was my experience, in these relationships. The abuse didn’t start right away. It didn’t even start as anything that you might even consider abusive.
Sometimes there might be a little comment, something that was enough of a dig to sting but insignificant enough to pretend to ignore. A week later, there might be another. Or maybe a comment about a friend: “I don’t know why you hang out with her. You’re so much smarter.”
It would be a few months, at least, before the question of control started to come in. And at first, it would seem protective. Flattering, even: “Call me the minute you get home. I want to know you’re okay.”
I barely noticed that my world was, once again, getting smaller, because he just chipped away at it all so slightly, so slowly, that by the time everything teetered over the edge, I’d barely noticed that I’d lost myself for a second time.
I didn’t talk about it much when it was happening. I had tried to reach out to a few people. But it’s hard, when you’re a kid. A lot of teens aren’t equipped to know how to help each other yet.
I did talk to an adult. A manager I worked with, who was 30 at the time. We were outside, smoking.
“My boyfriend hit me,” I said. I remember she looked at me, blank, and took a drag on her cigarette. She looked away as she exhaled.
“Oh,” she said, dropping the cigarette the ground. “I should go back inside. We’re closing soon.”
I was downtown one night, drunk. I’d been hanging out with some poet friends who were a little older. It was easy to get served in bars when I was out with them.
On my way home, I stopped at a payphone and called home.
“Promise you won’t tell dad?” I asked my mom.
“Okay, I won’t,” she said. But she told him anyway, and none of us ever talked about it again. Years later, my mom has asked about him sometimes, as though nothing ever happened: “Do you ever think about him? What does he do now?” She speaks his name without noticing that I refuse to, that I refuse to even look up from my feet when these questions arise.
“How bad does he hit you?” A boy at the mall asked one night. We were hanging out by a door only staff used. I thought he was cute. I was hoping he might take me, hold me, help me, somehow.
“Like, do you get black eyes and stuff?”
I wanted to tell him about the smell of my boyfriend’s spit, the gobs he used to pull up from the back of his throat whenever he’d caught another guy looking at me on the street. I wanted to tell him how the sour stink of it seemed to linger on my cheek even no matter how hard I washed my face.
Instead, I said nothing, wishing I hadn’t brought it up at all.
It was all the beginning of a bigger lesson that people often only look at what they see:
“You seem fine to me.”
“You two always seemed so happy.”
“I had no idea.”
And so it was easier to fold back in on myself, to tuck my secret back into my chest, to sit alone in my bedroom with the stereo on, writing down in my journal the story of a girl whose life I never imagined I would be living.
Because no one, at any age, ever thinks that their relationships will end up this way.
But relationships do. It happens more than you know.
And one of the hardest things about it was realizing that I’d once again let my friends slip away. That I’d let someone make my world feel so small that all I had left was them. I’d started to believe I needed the person who was hurting me because without them, I would have no one.
All of my friends were their friends. I would nothing to do on Friday nights. There was no one I could call and hangout with. There was no one left I could talk to.
And that can feel scary. Or at least it did for me, because I was deeply, deeply lonely.
On the Sunday it all changed, I was going to go shopping by myself. Because if I wasn’t with him, I was alone, or at home with my parents.
And I was listening to the Cure, and on came a song called “Doing the Unstuck.” I’d heard it a hundred times before, but that day I heard something new in it:
it’s a perfect day for letting go
for setting fire to bridges
and other dreary worlds you know
let’s get happy!
it’s a perfect day for making out
to wake up with a smile without a doubt
to burst grin giggle bliss skip jump and sing and shout
let’s get happy!
but it’s much too late you say
for doing this now
we should have done it then
well it just goes to show
how wrong you can be
and how you really should know
that it’s never too late
to get up and go…
“It’s never too late to get up and go,” I thought to myself. “Yes, that’s what I’ll do. I will go. I will burn bridges.”
It can almost feel silly, as I look at those lyrics, but that day that song filled me with such strength – such need to seize the day – that I realized I needed to make a change, and that I had to start to see that I had to take control over my life.
I needed to end my relationship once and for all (I’d tried before), and I couldn’t worry if it left me lonely or not. That could change. I could change.
I remember going shopping that day and buying myself a new shirt as I walked around thinking of how I would say everything.
On my way home, I was filled with so much hope.
I was so sure of myself, and what I was about to do.
It was easy, but then it wasn’t. There was a long time – years – before I had a serious relationship again. And there was a long time, too, before I felt like I had friends again.
But I always had that song to go back to. Every time I needed to remind myself of the choices ahead of me, I just needed to think of that song.
Two days before I sat down to write this, I saw the Cure play in Montreal. I traveled for six hours by bus to get there. I’ve never gone that far for a concert before, but I had to do it for this one.
I knew they would play long (over three hours) and I knew I would regret it if I didn’t go. I’d seen them twice before and was waiting for them to tour again.
They didn’t play “Doing the Unstuck,” but I didn’t need to hear it. I just needed to be there, to give myself over to something, to live out the belief that life can change at any moment and that there is always the potential for something new and wonderful waiting around the corner.
And as I was walking home that night, I realized I’d been listening to this band for 20 years, that while other bands have and gone the Cure have been a part of my life for two decades.
Of course I would have traveled hours for this. Of course, because my life was shaped by these sounds, these songs.
You never know what might happen when you surrender yourself to something: A book, a poem, a piece of art, a song lyric. These works become moments in time, stitched into the people we grow into, markers along the paths that we follow.
I never would have imagined, years ago, of all that would have taken place in my life along the way, and of how far I would be able to bring myself from everything I knew I needed to get away from.